If any explanation is needed about why the Alsatian master cheese maker and affineur Bernard Antony received the coveted Ordre National du Mérite from French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier last month, it all comes down to balance and finesse. After tasting Antony’s cheeses at a recent dinner in Bordeaux, winemaker Stephan von Neipperg of Château Canon La Gaffelière proclaimed: “Finally we can understand the difference between ready-to-wear and high fashion.” In a cheese sense, that is. “A cheese can be delicious,” he continued, “but this kind of distinctive flavor, complex and refined, is certainly the very well-hidden great secret of Bernard and Jean-François Antony.”
Jean-François, Bernard’s son, now works with his famous father, who has been making cheese for more than 35 years. Antony started out in a modest épicerie before working under the tutelage of the legendary French cheese master Pierre Androuët, and since 1982 he has run his own cheese cellar in Vieux-Ferrette, near Altkirch in southern Alsace. First recognized by the great French chef Alain Ducasse, who bought Antony’s cheeses for his restaurants, he now prepares cheese for discerning connoisseurs around the world, including Queen Elizabeth II and former French President François Mitterrand, who were served his handiwork at the celebrations for the 1994 opening of the Channel railway tunnel connecting France to the U.K.
His cheeses are served at scores of top restaurants, and he caters to some of the best châteaux in the Bordeaux wine country, where I first discovered the quality of his cheeses. Antony also regularly travels to major cities around the world, from Hong Kong and Singapore to New York and Chicago, offering eager cheese aficionados a taste of his edible oeuvres.
Antony cheeses are special because of that constant search for balance and finesse, which is not always found in artisanal cheese made from raw milk. Some handmade cheese can be overly pungent or funky-not necessarily to a fault, but noticeably. Not so chez Antony. Take his two- and four-year-old Comté, for example. During a recent lunch with exceptional wines at the famous Pétrus estate in Pomerol, given by the owners, I had the chance to enjoy the cheeses’ nuance and depth of flavor. The two-year-old cheese was fruitier, but hardly simple, while the four-year-old cheese showed hints of earthiness, with nutty nuances. Both were “clean” which, in cheese lingo, means pure and at the same time smooth. The younger Comté was best matched with a 1998 Château Magdaleine, while the older cheese’s complexity was echoed in a fabulous 1995 Château Trotanoy.
Made from unpasteurized cow’s milk in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France, Comté is reported to have the highest production figures of all French AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) cheeses: some 40,000 tons annually. But as guests at the lunch noted, not all Comté is the same. Of the 10,000 or so wheels (or meules) of Comté made available to him from cheese makers, explains Jean-François, he and his father will choose no more than 150, with the help of the chefs de cave or affineurs who work with them to age the cheese.
The ability to make the right selection only comes with experience, he adds. “Young cheeses can taste very similar, much as young age-worthy Bordeaux wines can taste fairly much alike,” he said. “One must be able to pick out the nuances in order to understand which cheeses will have the capacity not only to age two and four years, but to age gracefully.” The Antonys’ shop and storage area does not have a lab with instruments measuring pH or other technical aspects: “Our lab is our palate,” says Jean-François.
Bernard explains that what makes a cheese special is “the magic of the terroir”. The grass in the pastures-and even when the grass grows-will make a difference in how the cow’s milk will eventually flavor the cheese.
A case in point is the variety of Beaufort called Beaufort d’alpage made with so-called autumn milk, which was also served at the Pétrus lunch. Named after a small town in the French Alps, Beaufort d’alpage is made with milk from mountain cows that graze in natural pastures. Can tasters discern the grass and flowers of the mountain when eating a piece of Beaufort? Jean-François says they can, indirectly. The Antonys prefer “end of summer” milk (or “beginning of autumn”, depending on weather conditions) because there is both less and higher-quality grass. “The amount of grass is very important,” Jean-François said. “If you have too much, as is often the case in the middle of summer, then the nutrients are diluted, as are the consequent flavors.”
“We especially prefer the regain, as that yields the most concentrated flavors,” he said. (Regain is a French term for that last burst of grass growth before cooler weather sets in.)
The Antonys consider themselves spoiled because they make cheese exactly as they wish. Some 80% of French cheese is made from pasteurized milk, for example: cheeses which they consider inferior because pasteurization not only kills potentially harmful pathogens like listeria or salmonella-which can exist in raw milk-but many flavors and nuances as well. The Antonys stick to unpasteurized milk, but stringent sanitary conditions in the dairies they use provide for a safe product, they say, so there is hardly a need to worry.
Where there is cheese, there is wine…
Visitors to the Antonys‘ fromagerie can also enjoy another cheese-lover‘s essential: matching cheeses with wines. The Antonys have an extensive wine cellar and a comfortable tasting room, where clients and customers can just sample their wares or-on Friday and Saturday evenings and by reservation only-indulge in the Cérémonie des Fromages: a meal that includes six different families of cheese, with several varieties of each type, accompanied by the appropriate wines.
The two products have much in common. Just as high-quality wines have their AOC in France, so do cheeses. Out of some 1,000 cheeses produced in the country-a figure that also includes the mass-produced and processed-only 45 come from officially recognized appellations d’origine. They are cheeses made in specific regions with specifically delineated terroirs. As with wine, the word terroir may literally mean land, but it denotes so much more for cheese. It implies climate conditions, cheese-making traditions, ancient breeds and soil quality as well. The taste and character of cheese from a particular region are determined by that region’s terroir.
Take Brie, for example, one of the oldest and finest of French cheeses, well known around the world. Brie from the town of Meaux was already popular in the Middle Ages. Its proximity to the Champagne region is serendipitous: its delicate but still rich flavor is a perfect match for bubbly.
The old notion that red wines go best with cheese is not really accurate. Make your own test. Put together a plate of seven or eight different French cheeses and try them each with both a bold red and an elegant white. More often than not, the whites will go better with most of the cheeses. The Antonys agree, although they also encourage a few great red wine-cheese combinations, such as the ones we enjoyed at the Pétrus lunch. But it’s usually best to avoid serving soft, creamy or particularly fatty cheeses with reds.
The reason why white wine can go so well with many cheeses is tannin-or more correctly the lack of it. The tannin in many red wines clashes with the fat in cheese, resulting in a metallic-tasting combination. Better to have crisp and fresh whites, with very low tannin, to balance that fat. Legendary wine writer Hugh Johnson has suggested that tannic reds can match harder cheeses, while the crisper acidity in white wines is the better match for creamier cheeses such as Brillat-Savarin, Camembert and Brie, as well as most goat cheeses. That’s one reason why the dense Comté served at the Château Pétrus lunch was such a success. “Comté is probably the most versatile cheese for wine, in that it can match up well with both reds and whites,” says Jean-François.
Another style of wine altogether goes best with blue cheeses (also called by the French persillés, or parsleyed, referring to the color of the mold) including Roquefort, Fourme d’Ambert and Bleu d’Auvergne: the sweet or late harvest wines of Sauternes, the Loire Valley or Alsace. The blue cheeses are so strong and pungent that they demand the balancing richness that the sweet wines deliver.
The right wine with the right cheese is a memorable combination, says Château Pétrus’s Christian Moueix. “Your cheeses made our lunch so much more beautiful,” he said to Bernard Antony as the festivities ended. “They added just the right touch of magic.”
Antony Eleveur de Fromages, 5 rue de la Montagne, Vieux-Ferrette, 03.89.40.42.22.